By William Wiley, February 6, 2023
If you have attended any FELTG training relative to handling misbehaving employees, you have no doubt heard our instructors caution that, from a legal standpoint, the less you do to a problem employee, the better. That’s because Federal employees have significant rights when it comes to challenging management actions, and some challenges can be much more serious than others. Therefore, the more you do, the more you will have to be ready to devote resources to defend, and the greater the odds that you might make a mistake.
Consider an employee’s right to file a complaint of whistleblower reprisal with the US Office of Special Counsel. If a supervisor takes – or even just threatens to take – a personnel action that negatively affects an employee, and that employee can convince OSC that the personnel action probably was motivated by a desire to punish the employee for whistleblowing (or filing a grievance or engaging in some other “protected activity”), then OSC will Release the Kraken! 5 USC 2302. If you have ever been on the receiving end of an OSC investigation and the subsequent threat of a stay or discipline of a management official, then you know that the OSC Kraken can be a very unpleasant Kraken indeed. [Editor’s note: Yes, the Kraken is a bit of hyperbole, but meant only to highlight the thoroughness and effectiveness of an OSC investigation.]
And don’t forget, once you’ve taken a personnel action against an employee who believes that whistleblower reprisal was the actual motivation, even if OSC decides not to prosecute, the employee can file an MSPB appeal: motions, depositions, discovery, hearings … all sorts of things that keep you from doing the real work of your agency. You just don’t want to go here if you can avoid it.
This doesn’t mean that an agency should refrain from dealing with a problem employee out of fear of an OSC investigation. Oh, no, that would be un-American. What it does mean is that a smart agency should figure out how to accomplish the objective with the employee that you want accomplished without unnecessarily triggering a possible complaint.
Here’s an example of how that works:
At FELTG, we teach that, as a general rule, supervisors should not issue letters of warning or counseling. That’s because neither is a required action and they are of little, if any, value relative to progressive discipline or eventual removal. If you’re going to put time and effort into drafting and issuing the employee some document to correct misbehavior, then issue a Reprimand, the traditional first step in progressive discipline.
However, there may arise a situation in which the supervisor wants to do something to get the employee’s attention, or simply to emphasize or clarify the workplace rule that the employee has been violating, without disciplining the employee. Someone in your office comes up with the idea of issuing a Letter of Warning and you get assigned the job of drafting it. What do you do?
Let’s say that Pat has been cooking fish for lunch in the break room microwave, making the office smell just awful. The supervisor wants to issue a Letter of Warning. Consider these two alternative drafts:
Letter of Warning (Option A)
From: The Boss
In the future, you are not to cook fish in the break room microwave.
Letter of Warning (Option B)
From: The Boss
In the future, you are not to cook fish in the break room microwave, or you may be subjected to discipline.
Option A puts the employee on notice of the office rule, an essential element of holding an employee legally accountable for future misconduct. Option B does the same thing, AND ALSO OPENS THE DOOR TO AN OSC INVESTIGATION! MSPB has held that a letter of warning or counseling that does not contain a threat of discipline is NOT a personnel action for the purpose of OSC jurisdiction, but one that does threaten possible future discipline is. Campo v. Army, 93 MSPR 1 (2002); Agee-Long v. GSA, MSPB No. SF-0752-17-0518-I-1 (Jan. 20, 2023) (NP).
Federal employment law is difficult enough when just the minimum is done. Just like packing that bug-out bag for when you have to hike into the wilderness to escape some disaster, you don’t want to carry any more weight than necessary. Employ that same principle when deciding how to do this work. Almost always, the less done, the better. [email protected]